Analysis of Microcystins in Cyanobacterial Blooms from Freshwater Bodies in England

Toxins (Basel). 2018 Jan 11;10(1):39. doi: 10.3390/toxins10010039.


Cyanobacterial blooms in freshwater bodies in England are currently monitored reactively, with samples containing more than 20,000 cells/mL of potentially toxin-producing species by light microscopy resulting in action by the water body owner. Whilst significantly reducing the risk of microcystin exposure, there is little data describing the levels of these toxins present in cyanobacterial blooms. This study focused on the quantitative LC-MS/MS analysis of microcystins in freshwater samples, collected across England during 2016 and found to contain potentially toxin-producing cyanobacteria. More than 50% of samples contained quantifiable concentrations of microcystins, with approximately 13% exceeding the WHO medium health threshold of 20 μg/L. Toxic samples were confirmed over a nine-month period, with a clear increase in toxins during late summer, but with no apparent geographical patterns. No statistical relationships were found between total toxin concentrations and environmental parameters. Complex toxin profiles were determined and profile clusters were unrelated to cyanobacterial species, although a dominance of MC-RR was determined in water samples from sites associated with lower rainfall. 100% of samples with toxins above the 20 μg/L limit contained cell densities above 20,000 cells/mL or cyanobacterial scum, showing the current regime is suitable for public health. Conversely, with only 18% of cell density threshold samples having total microcystins above 20 μg/L, there is the potential for reactive water closures to unnecessarily impact upon the socio-economics of the local population. In the future, routine analysis of bloom samples by LC-MS/MS would provide a beneficial confirmatory approach to the current microscopic assessment, aiding both public health and the needs of water users and industry.

Keywords: First systematic screen of microcystins in English water bodies, showing variable toxin profiles and some environmental dependencies. Results show importance of routine toxin testing to supplement microscopic identification of cyanobacteria.; Key Contribution; LC-MS/MS; cyanobacteria; freshwater blooms; microcystins; toxin profiles.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Cyanobacteria
  • England
  • Environmental Monitoring
  • Fresh Water / analysis*
  • Fresh Water / microbiology
  • Harmful Algal Bloom*
  • Microcystins / analysis*
  • Water Pollutants, Chemical / analysis*


  • Microcystins
  • Water Pollutants, Chemical